We’re pleased to announce our first keynote of 2013’s conference, Alex “Skud” Bayley of Infotrope!
Skud is a social justice activist, software developer, and advocate for open technology and culture beyond the “open source” world. She has worked in the technology industry for 2 decades, in the Internet/dotcom/web development field, and in open source software, most closely with Perl. In 2011, she left the tech industry to become a sound engineer, and in 2012 founded Growstuff, an open source project building a website for food cultivators to record their gardening activity.
Q: What first got you into open source?
A: The Internet.
In 1993 I was an undergrad studying IT — business oriented computing, lots of databases and functional requirements analysis and COBOL. I knew about the Internet and desperately wanted to use it, but our university only offered very limited access to most undergrads: email, usenet, gopher (a precursor to the WWW). However, if you were studying a comp sci subject and had an account on the Unix servers, you could get wider-ranging access: you could telnet to anywhere, for instance, which meant you could use talkers and MUDs, and you could compile your own software to do other things. So, I took a Unix subject, got an account on the Unix server, and revelled in it! My lecturer saw how interested I was. One day I was telling her how sad I would be to have to give up my Unix account at the end of semester. She told me about this guy in Finland who had written a version of Unix that would run on a PC like the 386 I had at home. I spent that whole afternoon and evening downloading an early version of Slackware onto 36 floppy disks, then took it home and installed it. I’m still amazed I managed to make it through the install process, which included compiling the kernel and everything, without knowing what I was doing. From then on, I used Slackware with X and fvwm and kermit to dialup to the university’s modem bank.
All my early encounters with open source software were in my efforts to get more involved in this exciting Internet thing. I learned Perl at first because I wanted to tweak the code for some mailing list software. Then I started building websites with it, and finally got a full time job doing that. It took me a few years to contribute back to the open source community, but over time I got quite involved in a number of projects and wrote some moderately influential Perl modules, and have my name somewhere in the Perl’s core docs.
Q: Why did you stay?
A: I didn’t.
Around 2007 I got fed up building LAMP websites for people and found a new job, working on an open data project called Freebase (now owned by Google). I started to get more involved in open culture projects outside of open source, and I even wrote a blog post called “Why I’m not an open source person any more” talking about how I didn’t feel like I was particularly part of that world any more, and how I’d moved on. I was still using open source software, of course, and I still had a lot of friends in the open source community, but I wasn’t writing much code and I wasn’t really that engaged with the code-centric side of open source. It seemed to me like the battle had been won and the whole “project” of open source was in maintenance mode: everyone was using it, directly or indirectly, and it was an accepted part of the landscape.
In 2011, in a state of serious burnout, I actually quit the tech industry and took some time off. I studied sound engineering and considered doing that full time, but it didn’t pan out. Then about a year ago I got an invitation to speak at GUADEC (a GNOME conference in Europe). I explained to them that I didn’t really do open source any more, but I did do open stuff in general, and would like to talk about that. So I did that, and as a result ended up talking to Federico Mena Quintero (one of the GNOME founders) about community gardens and permaculture and how an “open” mentality exists in fields like that, far away from software. Over lunch we got talking about how you’d build an open data repository about crops and planting times. I said if I were going to build something like that, I’d do it the same way Ravelry (a knitting and crochet website) built its database of patterns and yarns: by collecting information from people worldwide and aggregating it. I slept on the idea, and the next day the idea of Growstuff (my current project) was born.
So now I’m back in open source, as a Ruby on Rails developer, but I come to it with a very different attitude from when I first discovered open source and got involved in the community. I’m coding, obviously, but I’m looking at it from a wider view: how does this open source code fit into an open world? How can we use it to increase openness, or support other related values, in fields outside of the tech industry? And how can open source learn from those other fields in turn?
Q: How do you think your projects (or open source in general) are changing the way the things have traditionally been done?
A: Well, my main project at present is Growstuff, as I said, which is a website for food gardeners to track what they’re growing and connect with other growers in their local area. When you say “the way things have traditionally been done” I think about growing food, and the traditions around that. We’ve been growing food for millennia, and the traditions around it vary from place to place, even from family to family. It could be planting times, the best varieties to grow in an area, how to deal with pests, or whatever. Sadly, a lot of those local traditions have been flattened out by globalisation and large agribusiness. Growstuff, I think, offers us a chance to maintain and renew some of the old traditions, by celebrating local growers and growing practices, and helping people share local knowledge through community connections. And then, Growstuff’s data about those growing practices will be available under an open data license, which is something we don’t really have for individual food-growers. There are open data standards for large-scale crops, or for research into species and varieties, but not much for someone who wants to know “when should I plant these tomatoes on my balcony?” or “what variety of apple tree is best for my backyard?”
On the software side, Growstuff is an unusual open source community in many ways. I wouldn’t go so far as to say that being unfriendly and elitist is a “tradition” of open source, but it’s definitely something you see in a number of projects. We work really hard not to be that sort of project. In particular, we want to make the barrier between users and developers more permeable, and encourage people not only to communicate with and listen to people on the other side, but actually to step across the barrier if they want to. We’ve had gardeners who’ve decided to try their hand at coding, and coders who’ve decided to grow things. We’re using agile software development, and Extreme Programming’s idea of the “on-site customer”, to make sure our devs and growers hang out together and work together, but I think as we get more used to the practice, it’s becoming more natural to us and less formalised. We also use pair programming throughout the project, which means in effect that if you want to get involved, someone will hold your hand and mentor you through your first few sessions. That has some downsides (ugh, scheduling!) but it does make it easy for people to get started if they want.
Q: What are you most passionate about now?
A: I’m passionate about lots of things. Mostly, right now, I keep ranting about how we have to turn the tech industry inside out. The Silicon Valley model is toxic, and we need to find a better way, one that respects and empowers people rather than trying to monetize them. I’m really into sustainable small business models for tech businesses, and I’m a big fan of indie companies that find a way to make money by building something valuable and selling it directly to their customers, not just by making something viral and slapping ads all over it.